Clam sauce quickie

27 Dec

The simple things absolutely are the best. Trouble is I often neglect to share them with you here, for fear of boring everybody half to death.

Hell, the only reason I bothered to snap a shot of this finished product last night is so that I could text it to my brother Joe. He is a bit under the weather, you see, sustaining himself with bourbon shots and cans of Chickarina soup; and, well, torturing my younger brother is just something that I like to do.

As with many simple dishes, this clam sauce was a last-minute kind of deal, made strictly with items found in the cupboard and the fridge, nothing more.

The Ingredients

1 lb. pasta (linguini, spaghetti, like that, cooked in well-salted water)

2 6.5-oz cans of chopped clams (including juices)

2 heads of garlic

A bunch of high-quality anchovy fillets

Crushed hot pepper to taste

A handful of chopped parsley

The How-to

Very slowly sauté the garlic cloves (whole or roughly chopped) in extra virgin olive oil until soft and caramelized.

Add the anchovy and pepper and sauté for around a minute.

Add the clams in their juices and the parsley and bring to a boil.

Add the cooked pasta and stir until fully incorporated.

And that, as they say, is that.

Feel better brother. You’ll be off the Chickarina and back onto real food in no time.

You can go home again

16 Dec

This is the way that Christmas Eves are supposed to wind up. After a few hours of eating and drinking and laughing and gift exchanging the gang, 11 of us regulars in all, parks itself on and/or near the closest upholstered furniture for the annual family photo.

A very good time is had by all.

This is absolutely not the way that Christmas Eves are supposed to wind up. As you can plainly see there are fewer bodies in this 2020 family portrait. Two fewer, actually.

That’s because a series of COVID-related issues prevented my wife Joan and me from attending. We were not the only citizens of the world who discovered ourselves in this deeply unfortunate predicament, just the only ones in our family.

The image above was texted to me moments after it was captured. The banner marks Cousin Josephine’s December 24 birthday, a significant one that I am also very sorry to have missed. The frames that people are holding house select (and individually meaningful) family photographs, ones that I had shipped to the usual Christmas Eve gathering place, Aunt Anna’s and Aunt Rita’s apartment in Queens.

It just totally sucked not being there.

Fortunately this year should mark a return to normal. In just a few days’ time Joan and I will pack up the car and head to where we belong on Christmas Eve. (If you are in need of food visuals of the traditional meal you can find them in this post from years back.)

It will be very, very good to be back home.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Look who’s not talking

1 Nov

My grandparents did not speak English well. They had emigrated to America in the early 1900s, fleeing extreme poverty in their home in Southern Italy. The place where they settled, a little-known section of Brooklyn known as East New York, was also impoverished, but much less so. There they lived and worked alongside other Italian immigrants just like themselves, and so the community relied heavily on its native tongue.

Decades later, when my two brothers, dozen or so cousins and I were growing up together in our grandparents’ modest side-by-side apartment buildings the official language in our home was English. Italian was spoken only when “the grownups” spoke amongst themselves, and only intermittently. 

In our family, it seemed, the adults’ shared secrets were closely guarded by a language that they could all speak freely but their children could not.

It wasn’t until I was in my late-twenties that it occurred to me to get angry about all this. There I was on a much-anticipated first trip to Italy and the only language skill that I had was an English-Italian dictionary stuffed in the back pocket of my blue jeans.

I was ashamed of my Italian-American self then. I am still.

Of all the things I have worked to teach myself in life, the language of my ancestors, a lovely and wonderfully expressive one at that, has gone largely ignored.

For years I blamed my family elders for not sharing with my generation the gift of their bilingualism. And for what? I come from a line of good and honest people. What kinds of secrets could they have had? Not many bad ones, I’m pretty certain, and so what was the point of keeping this entirely romantic language all to themselves?

No, the real reason why my brothers and cousins and I were not raised to be bilingual is a much sadder one, at least it is to me. Our parents and grandparents thought it best for our generation—for our future prospects in the country we lived in, that is—that we not be Italians like they were but Americans. 

Fully assimilated Americans. 

Through. And through. And through.

Days ago I was on a plane traveling from Milan’s Malpensa Airport to New York’s JFK International, only a few miles from the place my grandparents had settled and lived out the rest of their lives. My wife Joan and I had just spent three weeks traveling in Italy, a place we have been to many times before and which we both love quite a lot. When we are in Italy it is I who does most of the communicating with the locals, but not without great preparation and practice and, yes, anxiety. Often these Italian-language encounters are less than fully successful, rarely are they completely satisfying. Never are they natural and comfortable and intimate.

I am a monolingual American all right.

Of course I alone am to blame for this, not my grandparents nor any of their children. Learning another language requires study and commitment, and the sad truth is that studious and disciplined I am not. Never have been.

I cannot tell you how deeply I regret this character flaw.

When I was a younger man it was easy to trick myself into believing that I could right myself one day.

It isn’t so easy anymore.

Far from home

4 Oct

It’s been a while, I know. How’s everybody been holding up?

You’d think that nearly two years of sticking close to home might lead to a lot of kitchen time and a constant flow of recipes and stories to share with you here.

I was thinking the same thing at the beginning of the pandemic. So we were both wrong.

It was four or five months into the thing when the first queries started to appear.

“Where the hell are you? I need some new stuff to cook–and you haven’t given us anything in a while. What gives?”

“I’m stuck here under quarantine and could really use a couple of new pasta ideas. Please, can you give us one before the weekend?”

That kind of thing.

As the many months wore on the tone of the messages changed dramatically.

“Haven’t seen a new post for quite a while. I hope everything is all right with you and that the virus hasn’t visited upon you or your family.”

“It’s been so long since we’ve heard from you. I miss you. Are you okay?”

And then, the inevitable.

“Have you shut down Mister Meatball? Are you there?”

Shutting the place down has in fact crossed my mind many times; it does still today. The reason that I haven’t yet is because I want to believe that things can go back to the way they used to be. That I can go back to the man I used to be.

You see, cooking used to be a joyful thing. Most of my earliest memories involve food: waking up to the smell of my mother’s meatballs frying on Sunday morning; hanging from the strong arm of my uncle Joe while he dipped crusty bread into a pot of tender trippa to give his two-year-old godson a taste; watching my father frying his eggs and rice and meat scraps of all kinds in a hot black iron skillet.

Food is home to me. If not for these and countless other memories, well, there would never have been a Mister Meatball blog in the first place.

But the pandemic has changed my relationship with food, and not in a good way. At the beginning, and for months and months and months on end, simply going out to shop for food felt fraught with danger and unpleasantness. In an instant food went from being about pleasure and joy and sharing and loving people to being about simple sustenance and ice cold practicality.

I’ve never been much prone to depression but I’ll admit that this whole wretched mess really has thrown me horribly off center. Which is the reason this blog has remained mostly silent and unattended for some time.

All I can do is hope to find a way back home.

The last eggplant parm

28 Apr

Looks promising enough, am I right?

Actually, I am wrong.

This is what I was aiming for. It is Aunt Anna’s light-as-air eggplant parmigiana, and it is perfect. Always.

“I don’t know how she does it” is a comment that I have heard uttered often and by many through the years. A close Associate of mine, one who abhors any and all parmigiana, no matter how finely prepared, craves my aunt’s eggplant.

For the past few Christmases Anna has been kind enough to freeze a tray of her eggplant parm, a gift meant to be transported from her apartment in Queens to my home here in Maine. I have grown accustomed to receiving this gift and was sorely disappointed when this past Christmas, due to the pandemic, I could not attend our family’s holiday meal.

Recently I tried to imitate my aunt’s eggplant in my own kitchen. You see, a lovely 98-year-old woman named Virginia, my wife’s mother in fact, had been ailing. After a while she lost almost all interest in food.

Her daughter had spent an entire weekend preparing things that might stimulate an appetite. There were short ribs and lamb shanks, pilafs and frittatas, chowders and creamed spinach, her favorite, and more. My principal job was to lend moral support and then pack single-serving meals into easy-to-handle containers for freezing and microwaving.

As is often the case, however, I was also tasked with introducing a bit of levity into an otherwise unfortunate time. And cooking up a batch of Anna’s eggplant parm felt like it might do the trick.

Ginny had been introduced to my aunt’s eggplant one Christmas, and in the most laughable way. The complete story can be found here but the short version is this: My mother-in-law’s planned holiday meal hadn’t been terribly well planned at all. When it became evident that our Christmas Day dinner was nowhere to be had, it was Anna’s eggplant, still frozen in the trunk of my car, that saved the day.

Ginny laughed and laughed at how preposterous it was to retrieve a holiday dinner out of the trunk of a car, and not a Christmas Day went by after that where she didn’t reminisce about the eggplant that had saved an earlier one.

Days after we’d stocked her freezer with food, I received a text from Ginny. (Yes, at 98, the woman was undaunted by technology.)

“The eggplant was delicious. You give your aunt some competition. Just finished a serving and my mouth is still watering. Good job!”

I had tasted my eggplant before gifting it to my mother-in-law and I assure you that my dear aunt has absolutely nothing to worry about. Trust me on this.

Still, Ginny had eaten the stuff, and that was all that really mattered.

“Nice of you to say,” I texted back. “But next year you’ll get the REAL thing from Anna, I hope.”

A few weeks later my wife’s mother passed, in the very town where she and her husband Dave had courted as young M.I.T. students. Soon her daughter and I will scatter Ginny’s ashes nearby, in the same spot as Dave’s.

I am planning to ask Anna if she wouldn’t mind providing us with a farewell meal.

Chocolate pignoli cookies

3 Jan

I’m not a man who messes with tradition. And yet here we are, fiddling with one of the most traditional recipes of all, the pignoli cookie.

Blame the global pandemic.

I do.

See, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands lately. (You are familiar with this concept, no?) After making a couple batches of my traditional pignoli cookie recipe, well, I just had to start messing around.

And so here you go, a chocolate version.

Hey, new traditions have gotta start somewhere.

Chocolate Pignoli Cookies Recipe

Makes about a dozen cookies  

8 ounces almond paste (do not us tubes; use either canned or foil wrapped)

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

3 tbsp flour

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1 extra large egg white

1 tsp vanilla extract

8 oz raw pignoli (pine nuts)  

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F

In a food processor, crumble the almond paste, then add the sugars, flour and cocoa and mix until fine. 

Add the egg white and vanilla and mix until dough forms.

Empty the pignoli into a bowl. Scoop out small amounts of the dough (wet hands help and so I keep a bowl filled with water on hand), then roll in pignoli until coated. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the sheet and bake another 10 minutes or so.

Allow to cool, give a light dusting of confectioners sugar and serve.

All I want for Christmas Eve

22 Dec

A silent night isn’t exactly my idea of a swell Christmas Eve.

I’d much rather be spending it with this (shall we say, colorful) crew.

COVID makes that impossible this year. Which breaks my heart hugely. And pisses me off about as much.

Christmas Eve morning I am supposed to be waking up at my brother Joe’s place in Queens, as I have every Christmas Eve morning since moving to Maine a quarter century ago. After a hearty breakfast (Joe’s awesome pancakes if I am very lucky) we would be getting into his car and driving over to Cypress Hills Cemetery, on the Brooklyn-Queens border. Inside the cemetery gate is a small wood and metal trailer where the man selling Christmas wreaths to mourners like us keeps himself warm. We always buy a wreath from this man but I do not believe he has once recognized us as the regulars that we are.

After storing the wreath in the trunk of Joe’s car it would be time to place our bets on how many minutes it will take for my brother to find his way to our parents’ gravesite. Cyress Hills is a sprawling, difficult-to-navigate cemetery and it is not uncommon to become hopelessly lost inside it. My wife Joan (did I mention that she would be with us?) is the official timer, she in the front passenger seat next to my brother, I in the rear.

Lately Joe has been winning our find-the-family-grave wager with great frequency. I suspect he may be practicing by visiting mom and dad when I am not around. Which could, depending on your view, be considered cheating.

By around noontime, after additional graveside visitations with other beloved family members nearby, we would be getting back to Joe’s neighborhood and doing last-minute Christmas shopping. By this I mean mostly last-minute gag-gift shopping for our godchildren Joanna and Alec, often at the “As Seen on T.V.” display at the CVS. Once we have all laughed our way through this ridiculous ritual it would be time for Joe and Joan’s annual tug-of-war on the subject of lunch, my wife being very much pro, my brother strongly not so.

“I’m saving myself for later,” he tells her, year after year after year after year.

“Later” is, of course, the traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, which takes place always at Aunt Anna and Aunt Rita’s apartment in Queens, beginning at around four or five o’clock and lasting late into the evening.

It is a night that I look forward to all year long. And silent it is not.

Nor should it be.


Shoes make the man

10 Dec


I am not the bravest of men. But sometimes there are moments.

It was Christmas Day, getting close to dinnertime. I was around 16 at the time. I’d been visiting with some of my aunts and uncles and was now walking back to our apartment when I noticed a familiar sight: a neighborhood guy named Rudy trying to get a passerby to get down onto the icy cold sidewalk and tie his shoelaces for him.

Rudy was a cripple. That’s what people like him were called back then. He’d had polio as a boy. His spine was noticeably curved and the fingers on both of his hands bent inward and towards his wrists. Among other things this meant that the man was unable to tie his own shoes. 

That task fell to those of us around Rudy. If you were a neighborhood boy or girl, man or woman, butcher, barber, teacher, plumber, whatever, and took seriously the concept of community, then tying Rudy’s shoelaces was your job, your responsibility. No less important a responsibility than helping an elderly neighbor walk across Atlantic Avenue or keeping somebody’s child from running out in front of a city bus. 

I had gotten down on my knees and helped Rudy plenty of times. At first, when I was little, it seemed funny, even a little creepy. But as I got older I didn’t mind it so much.

Reflecting on it now, I learned an awful lot about compassion and humility by kneeling down in front of that poor man. Maybe some others did too.

Rudy was around my parents’ age. He lived with his sister Frances and brother Johnny in the brick row house where they had grown up together as children. He was as much a fixture in our tightly knit Brooklyn neighborhood as anybody. Rudy was always hanging around where you could run into him, either on the stoop outside of his house, a street corner where other men gathered, or on the sidewalks where he constantly—and very slowly and deliberately—walked alone each and every day.

“Rudy Tie My Shoes” is what people called him.

This was not to be cruel to the man, mind you. A guy who lived across the street from me had a face that was framed by almost perfect right angles. We called him “Frankie Squarehead” because, well, why would you not? His name was Frank and his dome was square. Nicknames like this were just the way of the time, that’s all. They weren’t meant to insult or to hurt anybody.

Anyhow, back to Christmas. I was a short block away from where Rudy was standing when I noticed what was actually going on. He had been walking in the light snow and happened upon a group of four guys around my age. Once I could determine who the others were I slowed my pace in order to read the situation more clearly.

It was Crazy Philip and three of his friends. Which did not bode well at all for poor Rudy. 

Philip was trouble from the day he moved into the neighborhood, around a year or so earlier. He had quickly formed his own street gang and got great pleasure out of intimidating people. I saw him beat the crap out of plenty of guys for no reason whatsoever, occasionally doing the kind of damage that required a visit to the doctor or to the ER. The two of us had come close to blows on more than a few occasions.

To be honest, I was afraid of the guy. He was pure anger and rage, without a shred of good judgment. Not so long after this day that I’m telling you about Philip got killed in a knife fight, bled out right there on our sidewalk. Few were sorry to see him go.

When I saw him and his boys circling around Rudy I knew that I had two choices: Find another way home or take my chances and hope for a Christmas miracle.

Felipe, que tal?” I yelled loudly while approaching the scene. Unlike me and everybody else within a five-block radius, Philip’s people were from Puerto Rico not Italy. “Feliz Navidad. You seen Anthony today?” Anthony had been my best friend as a young boy; he still was my friend, only we had grown apart ever since he and Philip started hanging out. They were equals in the gang they were a part of, the only two equals as far as I could determine. I had always believed that, if not for Anthony’s known history and friendship with me, and his influence over Philip, his new friend and I would have come to violence long ago.

“We’re busy here, man,” Philip said staring at Rudy in a way that I had seen and feared many times before. “Tony’s at home. You want him, you know where he lives.”

Anthony had only recently come to be called Tony, just not by me.

The snow picked up and Rudy wasn’t wearing a hat, a scarf or a pair of gloves. He was his usual slow self, not speaking, but the man appeared to somewhat grasp the delicacy of his situation. 

“What you lookin at?” one of Philip’s friends said pushing Rudy’s face with an open palm as the others laughed. 

“Hey retard, your shoe’s untied,” said another. “C’mon, let’s see you tie it.”

This was not looking good at all. The only chance I had would be to act quickly and decisively.

Felipe,” I said loudly and in a way meant to strongly draw his attention away from Rudy and toward me. “Respect. Sabe? I’m just gonna bend down now and help this man out with his shoes. I don’t want any trouble here.”

Asking Philip’s permission to do anything, let alone assist a helpless man like Rudy, was enough to make me want to hurt somebody. Badly. But it was the only possible way out of this. Philip’s boys would do whatever he told them to do. If he decided to let Rudy go on his way then Rudy would go on his way. If not then there was no telling how far they would go, how badly they would hurt the poor guy. Or me.

Philip stared me down in a way that suggested I had miscalculated my ability to diffuse the situation. But when enough seconds passed without him saying anyhing, I moved through the pack until I got to Rudy. I could see how frightened he had become but also noticed a bit of relief in his face. Mine was at least a familiar and friendly presence and Rudy knew it.

“Who he to you, man?” said one of Philip’s boys as I kneeled and brushed the snow and slush off of Rudy’s black leather shoes. “Maybe you should mind your business.”

Rudy’s left shoe trembled as I tied it, possibly from the cold but perhaps not. 

“Okay, now the right one,” I said as much to the others as to Rudy. 

Philip had yet to speak and his boys had turned quiet. I imagined getting kicked in the head and pummeled to the ground.

“There you go, good as new,” I said standing to face the man I had assisted like this since I was a child. “Merry Christmas, Rudy.”

All that was left to do now was to turn around and to face Philip. 

“We’re done here, right Felipe?” I said summoning more courage than I’d thought I had. “The man can be on his way?”

Philip’s frizzy dark hair was topped with white snow, his black and red leather gang jacket wet around the shoulders and down his chest. The guy had the blackest, scariest, most intimidating eyes I had ever seen. Being stared down by them made me feel small. 

“One day we’re gonna get it into it, Tony or no Tony,” Philip said, turning his stare first to Rudy and then to his boys. “Vamos, chicos.” 

Rudy stood motionless as Philip and his boys strutted away. After they turned the corner and were out of sight I gently grabbed Rudy’s misshapen elbow. I can’t speak for him but I myself only felt a little less scared than I had moments earlier.

“I’m gonna walk you home now, Rudy,” I said. “That all right?” 

He didn’t smile or nod or say anything at all, but he did let me keep hold of his arm for the couple-block walk to his house. Before climbing the steps of his stoop Rudy motioned for me to tie his shoelaces again. They didn’t need tying this time and so I took this to mean that the man needed a little more friendly human contact before the two of us parted ways. 

Which was okay by me.

I needed the same thing.

Ginny’s Thanksgiving pie

26 Nov

When a 98-year-old woman texts you her mother’s recipe for a cherished holiday pie from her childhood — days before Thanksgiving, it is worth noting — well, my mamma didn’t raise no dummy.

Also worth mentioning is the woman’s place in my life. She is my wife’s mother. Her name is Virginia. But you can call her Ginny.

Ginny is a New Englander to the core. The place where she lives today, just outside of Boston, is but a few miles from where she was born and raised.

New Englanders and New Yorkers, particularly Italian-American New Yorkers like myself, are not always, shall we say, simpatico in matters of food cravings. I learned this long ago, and so was not surprised that Ginny’s pie recipe featured a main ingredient unlike any that my kind would expect on a holiday dessert tray.

It’s a blue hubbard squash.

And here’s what it looks like inside.

Lucky for Ginny that her son-in-law doesn’t live in Brooklyn anymore; he lives in Maine, where the nearby farms are positively lousy with these things!

Despite a strong urge to fiddle with the recipe (I am not a recipe follower by nature) I followed this one to the letter. I cooked some of the filling separately to see what I’d gotten myself into and it tasted an awful lot like a pumpkin pie, both to me and to Ginny’s daughter.

Later on today we’ll be driving the pie down to Ginny’s.

She is not a woman without strong opinions and so odds are good that a Comment might be forthcoming.

Pray for me.

And Happy Thanksgiving.

Blue Hubbard Squash Pie

One pie crust. (I used Beth Queen of Bakers’ recipe.)

1 1/2 cups blue hubbard squash, roasted and mashed

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon cloves

2 eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups evaporated milk

1 tablespoon melted butter

Mix together the dry ingredients, then add in the squash and mix thoroughly. Add the beaten eggs, milk, and butter and mix.

Bake at 425 degrees F for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake for another 45 minutes or so.

Pasta with cauliflower & toasted breadcrumbs

19 Nov

Man does not live by red sauce alone.

At least that’s what everybody keeps telling me. And telling me. And telling me.

Fine. Be that way.

Toast yourself around half a cup of breadcrumbs in a pan, then set aside. Oh, and blanch a head of cauliflower (you know, the white kind of main ingredient) while you’re at it; four or five minutes oughta do it.

Saute some garlic, crushed hot pepper and, yes, anchovies, in olive oil until the garlic has softened.

Toss in the cauliflower, some chopped parsley and the zest of a lemon.

Incorporate like so.

You got pasta in the house, right? I guess I should have mentioned that a pound of your favorite should have been boiling in well-salted water by now. I went with orecchiette. Toss the pasta in with the cauliflower along with a good ladle’s worth or more of the pasta water and turn up the heat until most of the water has evaporated.

Then add the toasted breadcrumbs and some grated cheese and incorporate.

Totally a No Red Zone kinda deal.

Happy now?